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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Deborah Abela and Review of Chapter Book The Most Marvelous I

Okay, so here's the second combination post I promised. When I attended the Australia SCBWI conference this year, I met this amazing author. I'd like to introduce her and share with you her fun chapter book series.

After completing a teaching degree, Deborah Abela went to Africa where she was caught in a desert sandstorm, harassed by monkeys, and thrown in jail…twice! She produced and wrote a national kids’ TV show before leaving to write twenty-six books including the Max Remy Superspy and Jasper Zammit (Soccer Legend) series and Grimsdon, New City and Final Storm, about kids living in a climate-changed world. Teresa, A New Australian was inspired by her dad who was born in a cave during WW2. The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee and the sequel, The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee (which released in the U.S in April 2019), were inspired by her grade 4 teacher, Miss Gray. Her first picture book is, Wolfie, An Unlikely Hero and was chosen by Dolly Parton to be part of her Imagination Library. She is a proud ambassador for Room to Read. Deb’s won awards for her books but mostly hopes to be as brave as her characters.

Deborah's second of the "Spelling Bee" series - The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee released March 1, 2019.

Welcome Deborah,

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

DEBORAH: When I was a kid, we never had much money and even though my mum left school very young, she knew that education and books could change her kids’ lives. So, each week, she would buy one Little Golden Book, until we had this wonderful library of books, which I treated like treasure. My first writing job was for TV before I began to write novels for kids, which is when I felt I’d found my home. My first book was published in 2002 and I have written many of my books from an attic with a view over the centre of Sydney. I have written books about soccer, spies, WW2, flooded cities, spelling bees, and pesky wolves and even though they are all different genres, they are all about kids facing what feels like insurmountable problems, until they find the courage to stand up and face them head on.

Given your bio, I can see where the "courage to overcome challenges" theme of your books comes from. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I nearly drowned as a 9-year-old, but was pulled from the surf by a big, burly man, who had another bedraggled, kid dangling from his other arm. I wish I could find him now and say thank you for all these years I’ve had because of him.

Wow! We're glad he was there, too. How were The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee and The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee inspired by your fourth-grade teacher? Why do you think this stuck with you so long and became these books?

I LOVED Miss Gray. I remember seeing her on the first day of school at assembly and hoping she would be our new teacher because she looked so friendly. She had a way of making everything fun….including spelling. Every Friday afternoon she would pit the boys against the girls in a running race/spelling competition. We all looked forward to this so much! I wanted to write about a young girl who was a brilliant speller with a family who adored each other and dedicate it to Miss Gray. When I finished the book, I found Miss Gray online, told her she inspired me to be an author and sent her the books. She had just retired and wondered what difference she’d made to kids’ lives. When my message arrived, she was thrilled.

Oh, I can just imagine the trill you gave her. With 26 books ranging from MG to PB, how hard is it for you to switch between these three genres? Do you have a favorite genre and/or, heaven forbid, a favorite among your books?

It takes me about a year to write a book, so after each one I’m usually a wee bit exhausted and like to switch genres as a way of keeping things fresh. So, after my historical fiction set during WW2, (Teresa, A New Australian) I wrote the light and unashamedly positive spelling bee books, then I wrote the final novel in my climate change series, called Final Storm, which is all action, adventure and girls who are good with swords.

I love the switch between genres and age groups, but I mostly LOVE writing for 8-12. It was my favourite age to be as a kid. As to my favourite book, I can only write a novel when I already know I love the characters and stories, but I have a huge affection for the spelling bee books and India and her gorgeous family. I’d love to live with them….they’re just so incredibly cute!

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

I can totally understand that desire. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I LOVED Norman Hunter and his Professor Branestawm series. I was mesmerised by the whacky inventions and humour. I also loved The Lorax by Dr Seuss and his crankiness about taking care of the planet. When I look at many of my books now, I see how many of them have been inspired by these books, whether it’s the inventions or a call to look after the planet. I feel as if they are deeply ingrained in me as a human and author.

Is there anything special you want your readers to know about The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee and The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee?

I am a teacher and author and have worked with kids for almost twenty years. In that time, I have seen an increase in anxiety in kids, which makes me so sad. Being a kid should be full of discovery and wonder, but the world can be scary.

So, my spelling bee books are really a tribute to all those kids out there who feel anxious or not good enough and to amazing families doing it tough but who, no matter what, support and love each other. The Wimples don’t have much money, they live in a small town, India’s younger brother has chronic asthma and Nanna Flo moves in after she breaks her wrist and needs her family's support. I wanted this book to be about the power of love, words, and books to nurture and change lives.

I think you succeeded in that and showing the value of friendship. Many of your books involve ghosts or spies. How different was it to write about a spelling bee competition? Did they present any particular challenges?

Even though the genres of my books change, the main thrust is often this: the importance of family and friendship, facing your fears, making your mark, and kids discovering they are braver than they thought.

My first series, Spyforce, was about spies and has a feisty female hero. I wrote this at a time when there were very few girls as heroes, but who also got slimed or muddy and fought the bad guy. The spelling bee books are simply another version of kids who face their fears. The main challenge with any book is to make sure the characters and plot are believable and, for me, to have readers who care about those characters. That is everything to me.

Did you find it harder to write Wolfie, An Unlikely Hero, especially given that you had to allow the illustrator space and creative control to create the images?

I’m not sure how it is in the US but in Australia, the publishers like to keep the author and illustrator apart, to control the creative process. This was really hard for me with my first picture book, because I love the collaborative nature of writing novels and working with editors, designers, and cover artists.

My second picture book (Bear in Space, Walker Books 2020) was a project I created with an illustrator friend. We worked on the book very closely before we even took it to a publisher. This is much more how I love to work and was so much more satisfying. Luckily, Walker Books loved it.

No kidding, that must have been a blast. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)

Miss Gray, my 4th grade teacher and my mum and her Little Golden Books. I also love my father’s mother, who I never met, but who brought up 6 children during WW2 in Malta, the most heavily bombed place during that entire war. After the destruction caused by the war, she left Malta and sailed to Australia, a country she had never heard of, having no English, but that promised peace and a new beginning for her kids. That is bravery.

I'm impressed by your grandmother, too. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

My crankiness about the world’s inaction in the face of climate change led to a novel called Grimsdon, about kids living in a flooded city with sea monsters, flying machines, and girls who are good with swords.

After hundreds of emails from kids asking for more I wrote the sequel, New City, but I still received messages demanding more, so I am writing the third and final book in the series called, Final Storm, (Penguin Random House Australia, August 2019). The picture book, Bear in Space, which I mentioned above, comes out in 2020. Now they are finished, I am going to play with a few ideas that have been demanding my attention and which I am so excited about.

Guess you're not the only one fed up with inaction. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you are grateful you did not know at the beginning?

I wrote for a kids TV show for 7 years before I wrote my first novel. Years of kid feedback gave me a great insight into their minds, which I used to write my spy series, Spyforce. I am so grateful for that, because I wrote my first novel with a sense of play, which I knew was integral to the show’s success. Now I can put pressure on myself to make each novel more successful than the last, which can sometimes cloud that sense of playfulness…..but which is so important when we write for kids, even with serious subject.

The world of publishing has changed a lot since my first book was published almost 20 years ago, and it’s so much easier now to find communities and stay connected, but I wish I’d sought out other writers more to share highs, lows, and advice. I LOVE my writer and illustrator friends now….they are simply some of my favourite people in the world.

This is definitely a hard business to work in without friends. Do you have any advice on querying agents, surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?

LOVE what you are creating. This will help you enjoy the process, find fulfillment in your work, but also deal with not everyone loving it as much as you do. To be a kids’ book creator you need to have a measured mix of humility but also stubbornness. A belief in yourself that is realistic but firm, especially in those times of rejections or published works not doing well. One way to cope with the lows is to be an active part of the kids’ book community. I LOVE mine…..they are supportive, talented and fun and have led to exciting collaborations. I am the Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and we have regular meetings and network opportunities, which I love. I’d strongly advise you to find a SCBWI chapter near you. There are many in the US.

Keep busy, never give up, enjoy and believe in what you do.

What is your favorite animal? Or one you are currently enamored with. Why?

I love the Australian bird, the sulphur crested cockatoo. It is a large cheeky bird, that is full of personality and mates for life, so can if you see one, their mate is never far away.

I met a flock of those cockatoos at the Botanical gardens in Sydney. Here's one that came up to say "hi" to me. And thanks to Deb, now I know its name!

© Maria Marshall, 2019.

Thank you, Deborah for participating in this interview. I enjoyed the chance to get to know you better.

Thank you so much. I ALWAYS love chatting about books and writing and even after twenty-six books, I am more fascinated by the creative process than ever. Take care and happy creating, everyone.

For more information about Deborah Abela, or to contact her:

The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee

This is a great chapter book for anyone who has ever experienced stage fright, absentee parents, invisibility to their family (because they don't fit in), or bulling by others for their appearance. And a wonderful tribute to the power of love and support from one's family. Plus it's just plain fun and exciting to read.

The Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee

Author: Deborah Abela

Publisher: Sourcebooks Young Readers (2019)

Ages: 8-12



Spelling, family, friendship, bullying, and mystery.


India Wimple can spell with the best of them. How else would she have won the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee and garnered an invitation to the Most Marvelous International Spelling Bee? India couldn't be more thrilled to travel to London along with the rest of the Wimples. And at first, it seems like a dream come true; she reunites with her spelling bee friends, and they even get to meet the Queen!

But there is skulduggery afoot, with some rather mysterious goings-on going on and a series of accidents that seem to be not-so-accidental after all. India has her suspicions about who is behind the duplicitous demonstrations. But can she solve the mystery in time to save the competition?

Opening Lines:

Chapter One

Triumphant (adjective):

Victorious, successful and gloriously undefeated.

The town celebrated the champion’s triumphant return.

India Wimple could spell. Brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that her family and country town of Yungabilla decided she would be the perfect candidate for The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee.

Trouble was, India didn’t agree.

What I liked about this book:

In this sequel, Deborah takes the three top spellers of the Australian National spelling bee (from The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee) and mingles them with some amazing characters at the International Spelling Bee competition in London, England. To buoy India's confidence, the Whipple family finds a way for them all to travel to England.

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

I love how each chapter of both books begins with a word, its form of speech, a definition, and its usage in a sentence (as though spoken by the Spelling Bee announcer). [This one is from the first book.] Talk about a great way to introduce vocabulary and hint at the "theme" of each chapter.

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

Although she delves into the POVs of each of the main five contestants, and India's younger brother, Deborah is very clear in her transitions and it isn't hard to follow or connect with each of the characters. She succeeds in supplying a mirror, or window, into many kids' lives and emotions through Rajish (driven to succeed by his father), the shy and insecure India, the "invisible" Holly (dismissed by brash & offensively pushy parents), Summer (a "latch-key," wealthy kid), and the bullied Peter (raised by a single mother). As well as India's over-coddled, asthmatic younger brother, Boo.

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

In addition to the typically expected background issue(s) of an international spelling bee - namely travelling to England and the fears and nerves associated with such a competition - this book examines the discrepancy of wealth (and the drive to attain it), friendship, and "common" civility. There's a little budding romance between grandparents, and even two of the competitors. And if that isn't enough, it also involves a mystery that threatens to derail the entire spelling bee.

© Aleksei Bitskof, 2019. (Permission from Sourcebooks.)

Humor abounds throughout the book as the families survive a number of strange "accidents," Mr. & Mrs.Trifle's Beaut Butts and Guts campaign, meet the Queen, and try to make their dreams come true. Though not everything each kid wishes for comes true, enough does for this to be a feel-good book loaded with friendship, bravery, and the discovery of what "family" really means.

One extra bonus to this book is the vocabulary. In addition to the words the kids spell during the competition, Deborah sprinkles Australian words - such as "loudhailer," "boot," and "lamingtons" - and fun, challenging words - like avaricious, bedraggled, exuberance, quandary, and resolute - throughout the books. Overall, this is a wonderful chapter book.


- make a list of words you'd use in a spelling contest;

- participate in a spelling bee in your class, school, or community;

- if your school doesn't have one, start a campaign to have a "buddy bench" installed on your playground (read about a girl who collected bottle caps to create a recycled buddy bench -

- read The Battle for Castle Cockatrice by Gerald Durrell and compare how the authors used dictionaries and vocabulary as the basis of their stories.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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